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James Caan

(1939 - 2022)

James Edmund Caan was an American actor. He was born on March 26, 1940, in the Bronx,  Son of a German Jewish butcher, Caan grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, New York City, home to a mix of Italian, Irish, and Jewish families.

He dropped out of several schools before graduating from Rhodes Preparatory School. Caan wanted to play football for Michigan State but didn’t make the team. He transferred by the end of his first year to Hofstra University but later dropped out.

After participating in a small project at a children’s theater, Caan was accepted to the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1960 and stayed for five years. He made his TV debut in an episode of Naked City. He later appeared in many shows, such as  Route 66, Dr. Kildare, The Untouchables, The Doctors and the Nurses, Ben Casey, Death Valley Days, Wide Country, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, and Combat!

His film debut was an uncredited part of Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963). In 1966, he appeared in El Dorado with John Wayne. His first collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola was in The Rain People (1969).

He played Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at 26, in the TV movie Brian’s Song (1971), earning his first critical attention and an Emmy nomination for Best Actor. However, his break-out performance as family enforcer Sonny Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) earned him the most notoriety, garnering him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

He followed that performance with appearances in a diverse range of films such as Cinderella Liberty” (1973), Freebie and the Bean (1974), The Gambler (1974), Rollerball (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Comes a Horseman (1978), and Thief (1981).

A longtime rodeo fan with the nickname “The Jewish Cowboy,” Caan snuck off during the production of Funny Lady (1975) to participate in a roping competition in Palm Springs. He roped steers on the rodeo circuit and was often injured. He had so many stitches and screws in his shoulders and arms that sportswriter Jim Murray said, “Jimmy Caan was not born, he was embroidered.”

Caan also enjoyed martial arts and reached the level of 6th-degree blackbelt.

Caan made his directorial debut with Hide in Plain Sight (1980), in which he also acted. The film’s poor box office results disappointed him.

“Everybody wants to do ‘Rocky 9’ and ‘Airport 96’ and ‘Jaws 7,’ “ he said in 1981. “And you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles.”

After Godfather II (1974), he worked with Coppola again in the Vietnam War-era film Gardens of Stone (1987). This came after a six-year hiatus after his sister died in 1981. He had become addicted to cocaine and went into rehab. “I got into the whole lifestyle of girls and drugs and partying,” he told Entertainment Weekly, adding that “you really do get caught up in it, and it’s very destructive.”

He considered retiring from acting but learned he was “flat-ass broke.”

Caan followed with such films as Alien Nation (1988), Dick Tracy (1990), Misery (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Bottle Rocket (1996), Eraser (1996), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), The Yards (2000), and City of Ghosts (2002).

After years of playing tough-guy roles, Caan won a new generation of fans as the father of Will Ferrell in the Christmas comedy Elf (2003). Later, in an odd twist on his Jewish background, he played a retired physician planning to start a pig farm in Nazareth in the film Holy Lands.

From 2004 to 2007, he starred in the hit TV series Las Vegas.

Thanks to his Godfather role, Caan was sometimes mistaken on the street for a gangster. He also twice won ‘Italian of the Year” even though he wasn’t Italian. In his memoir, Yearbook, Jewish actor Seth Rogan said Caan was “a scary Jew, which is almost unheard of. He’s in his own lane, Jew-wise.”

Caan made his first and only trip to Israel in 2016. Asked why it took so long, he explained, “I’ve always wanted to go to Israel and was never given the opportunity. I was too busy having children all the time. Getting married and having children. Now, I took my 20-year-old son, and I thought it would be good for him to see as well as myself.”

He said if anyone had tried to convince him to cancel the visit, “They would have gotten punched in the face.” He added, “No, I don’t hang around with anti-Semites if that’s what you mean and I don’t know any. And if I did, I’d punch them in the face.”

Caan was married four times. He died on July 6, 2022, at age 82. His brother and five children survive him.

His Godfather costar Al Pacino said, “Jimmy was my fictional brother and my lifelong friend. It’s hard to believe that he won’t be in the world anymore because he was so alive and daring. A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend. I’m gonna miss him.”

Director Rob Reiner tweeted, “So sorry to hear the news. I loved working with him. And the only Jew I knew who could calf rope with the best of them. Love to the family.”

Sources: Adam Wills, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd. ed., © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Clyde Haberman, “James Caan, Actor Who Won Fame in ‘The Godfather,’ Dies at 82,” New York Times, (July 7, 2022).
PJ Grisar, “Remembering James Caan, the ‘only New York Jewish cowboy,’” Forward, (July 7, 2022).
Charu Sinha, “Al Pacino, Barbra Streisand, Adam Sandler, and Others Mourn James Caan,” Vulture, (July 7, 2022).
“James Caan,” Wikipedia.
Pesach Benson, “Hollywood Legend Who Loved Israel Passes at 82,” United with Israel, (July 10, 2022).

Photo: Caulfieldh, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.